Which of us is “crazy”, the man who lives in fear or the rest of us who live in its denial? By 1955, a decade had passed since the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even if the world seemed “peaceful” it was only superficial. The Korean War had “ended” in an uneasy truce only two years earlier and the world was already mired in a cold war which daily threatened to turn hot with both sides in possession of a nuclear deterrent. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Ikimono no Kiroku) asks us if we can really say a man is “insane” if his life is ruled by a rational anxiety and if it is our refusal to accept the threat he sees which eventually drives him out of his mind.
Our guide is gentle dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura) who has a sideline as a mediator at the family court. The case he has been called in on one particular afternoon is that of the Nakajima family which is attempting to have the ageing patriarch, Kiichi (a near unrecognisable Toshiro Mifune), declared legally incompetent on account of his increasing paranoia about nuclear attack and latent radioactivity. A wealthy self-made man and foundry owner, Kiichi has frittered away vast sums on harebrained schemes to keep himself and his family safe but after a plan to build a bunker in a remote area had to be abandoned, he’s set his heart on moving everyone to Brazil where he believes they will be safer.
The problem is partly one of changing times as Kiichi, “despotic and selfish” as his son describes him, attempts to railroad his family into a safety they do not want or need. His two legitimate sons now operate the foundry and their lives are dependent on it, which is not to say that they are dependent on Kiichi, but if he goes through with selling the the foundry to finance his new life it will leave them all high and dry. It would be, to a certain way of thinking, the ultimate paternal betrayal but in Kiichi’s mind all he’s trying to do is “save” his family from an invisible threat.
That family, meanwhile, is one he’s already undermined through patriarchal selfishness in fathering a series of illegitimate children he is also supporting financially but has never legally acknowledged. The parents of the illegitimate kids are worried that if the family succeeds in having Kiichi declared legally incompetent, his wife will get her hands on the purse strings and they’ll be left out in the cold. Kiichi, meanwhile, has an old-fashioned view of filial relations and never considers that the other kids might not want to come with him either even if it’s unexpectedly nice of him to include them, or that inviting your two mistresses to live in the same house as your legal wife might be awkward for all concerned.
On the face of it, the case is open and shut. If a man causes his family to suffer through frittering money away on drink or pachinko, they would approve the motion to give another family member legal control over his finances. So why is it taking them so long to decide if Kiichi is a liability to his family or not? The problem is, his fear is entirely rational. It’s only its extent which is the problem. It’s perfectly understandable to be afraid of the ebola virus or brain-eating amoeba, but we can’t afford to spend every minute of every day consumed by fear and so they retreat into the background anxiety of our lives while we try to go on living. Yet, could it be that Kiichi has it right and we’re merely living in denial, sleepwalking into a preventable disaster while he alone has a plan for survival?
“No place is safe” Kiichi’s son-in-law exasperatedly explains to him after he has taken drastic and somewhat ironic action, a kind of scorched earth policy designed to force his sons to follow him into a new world of safety. Pushed over the edge, Kiichi gets a rude awakening, realising that it was perhaps selfish of him only to think of salvation for his immediate family when his actions will essentially throw his workforce under the bus. Belatedly, he promises to find a way to take them to Brazil too, never realising that people have their own lives that aren’t so easily uprooted. He thinks Brazil is safer because the currents of the world seem to blow ill winds over Japan, but there are already more than enough nuclear bombs lying in warehouses to destroy the planet several times over.
In any case, Kiichi has already destroyed his family through his various transgressions. They don’t want to go in part because they don’t particularly like him, are sick of his gruff authoritarianism, and resent his tendency to make unilateral decisions on their behalf. Strapped for cash he tries asking the illegitimate kids to return some of the money he gave them, but they too are insecure in their positions and cannot trust that they will continue to be provided for if Kiichi is deposed. Meanwhile, when Kiichi falls ill the legitimate children are only too quick to start discussing the inheritance in the absence of a will. Perhaps Kiichi isn’t much more to them than a walking wallet, all of which lends a rather poignant quality to his continual attempts to protect his family from the nuclear apocalypse in fulfilment of his fatherly duty even as he wagers their economic security to do so.
If Kiichi is a Cassandra prophesying the end of the world, we won’t be here to be sorry we didn’t listen, but Harada and other more rational minds are shaken by the intensity of his vision. They cannot say that he is “mad” even if his anxiety has consumed his life, but nor can they allow him free rein to pursue his plans because they do not concern only himself but greatly affect the lives of others. They are forced to wonder if it isn’t we who are “insane”, quietly living our lives while all these preventable threats hover in the background, ignored. Kiichi’s mistake was perhaps that he wanted only to be “safe” in an unsafe world, not to cure it of its dangers. Few us are actively trying to eliminate ebola or brain-eating amoebas, just as few actively opposed an increasingly nuclear society, powerless as we are and were in the face of a greater threat. Perhaps Kiichi was the sanest one of all, retreating into a world of madness and infinite safety in a delusional bubble of survival in an otherwise crazy world.
I Live in Fear screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 6th & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.